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Technology Justice: A Call to Action

Guest content
05 August 2016

Technology is at the heart of human development. It enables people to produce food, access water and energy, and keep in good health. But access to technology and its benefits are not fairly shared, argues a new report from Practical Action. 

Technology underpins all aspects of our everyday life and wellbeing: from how our food is produced and how we access water and energy at home and work, to the transport infrastructure we rely on, our health, and even how our children’s education is delivered. It enables us to live well, with less effort and drudgery, with lower costs and fewer resources.

In the developed world, this technology is taken for granted, every day and in every aspect of life. It is so universal that it has become invisible.

But, in the developing world, the absence of technology is starkly obvious:

  • 1.1 billion people still lack access to electricity (World Bank Group, 2015).

  • 4 million people die prematurely each year from indoor air pollution, due to a lack of clean energy technology for cooking (WHO, 2014).

  • 800,000 children die each year from diarrhoea, due to untreated water supplies and a lack of toilets (Liu, 2012).

The reality is that technology is cruelly polarized. The rich world enjoys more than its fair share. And, for the poor, the lack of technology is a designing feature of their poverty and their hardship.

This injustice is a major obstacle to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals. These goals, launched in September 2015, are designed to end poverty by 2030 and to create a sustainable future for humanity and the planet. For the goals to succeed, technology – in all its many forms – must be at the heart of development efforts.

The UN estimates that women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water. This is equivalent to one year’s labour of the entire French workforce (UNIFEM, 2008). Imagine, then, the potential impact of water technologies alone to free up these 40 billion hours for economic, household or recreational activity. Not to mention the 5 million lives that would be saved each year by introducing clean energy for cooking, a clean water supply and toilets. 

But that’s just the start. Essential technologies such as these lead to improved health and nutrition, higher incomes, better education, and opportunities for whole families and communities.

Our essential needs have been expressed by economist Kate Raworth as elements of a ‘minimum social foundation’ (see Figure 1). Throughout history, technology has played a crucial – but often overlooked – role in meeting each of these social priorities and in helping us avoid unacceptable deprivation in the form of hunger, ill health or poverty. 

Meeting the fundamental human need, for example, for food depends on a multitude of technologies: agricultural technologies such as improved seeds and technical knowledge to increase productivity; energy technologies for cultivation and food processing; water supply technologies for irrigation; and transport technologies to distribute inputs and products, among others.

Given that, in most cases, technology is needed to meet each of these social priorities, and that billions of people have limited access to technology, it is no surprise that we are still some distance away from achieving the social foundation and Sustainable Development Goals.

A double-edged sword

Technology has enhanced the quality of life and wellbeing of billions of people through the rapid technological changes of the industrial and green revolutions.

But technology has proved to be a double-edged sword – the way we have used it has also led to vast and unintended negative consequences for the environment. Now we are faced with questions about the sustainability of human and other forms of life on this planet.

Leading scientists, led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, have identifed a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to thrive for generations to come (see Figure 2).

As Rockström’s diagram shows, we have already passed three of these boundaries, our use of technology creating irreversible and catastrophic damage to our planet.

Our over-reliance on green revolution technologies in agriculture – such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers – has played a large part in breaching the nitrogen cycle barrier and in the devastating rate of biodiversity loss (ETC Group, 2012: 186).

Our unsustainable use of water in industry and irrigation is creating a freshwater crisis.

And our use of fossil fuel energy technologies has led to the warming of our entire planet – which in turn is having a range of negative impacts on food production, increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters, and leading to a rise in sea levels that threatens low-lying coastal zones in countries such as Bangladesh (Edenhofer et al., 2005). 

Alongside conflict and global inequality, climate change has been cited as contributing to the unprecedented movement of refugees into Europe that made headlines around the globe in 2015 (O’Hagan, 2015). This could be the new norm. Controversial estimates suggest that up to 200 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050 (Myers, 2005).

Universal access to technology is essential if everyone on the planet is to have adequate food, water, energy, shelter and livelihoods. But unfettered access to technology can create huge problems – and has already done so. 

Now, we have reached a critical stage. Our technological prowess is impacting on our environment in ways we do not always understand and cannot always predict, but which are capable of making the earth uninhabitable.

A force for justice

A more just and responsible approach to technology is fundamental if we are to solve these global social and environmental challenges, prevent more irreversible damage to our planet and defuse future resource-based conflict.

Financial and political commitments made in support of the UN’s sustainable development goals now provide a platform to radically change the direction of technology and development.

Exciting and rapid innovations in big data and ICTs offer revolutionary opportunities to share information and hold people to account. Diverse actors are creating new partnerships with the aim of developing more shared and open technologies, more sustainable paths and circular economies, and innovations that positively disrupt the status quo.

Now is the moment to harness this energy to find a new path for technology development and use. One where technology is used to ensure everyone on the planet today can enjoy a basic standard of living. And where technology is used in an environmentally sustainable way that will ensure the same for future generations.

This is Technology Justice.

Technology Justice demands an urgent paradigm shift in the global approach to innovation, technology and international development.

  • We must increase access to technologies, often existing ones, to ensure that all people are able to meet their essential needs.

  • We need new governance mechanisms that can more effectively curb the use of technologies that adversely affect the environment that we depend on to survive.

  • And we need technological innovation that can reduce the environmental and social impacts of technology use and the consumption of natural resources. 

Original source: Practical Action

Exercepted from the report: Technology Justice: A call to action